Sarvangasana (shar-von-gah-sahnah) or Shoulderstand Pose as we commonly know it, is a dynamic inverted yoga posture. It literally means "supported whole body pose" when you translate it from Sanskrit, the language of yoga. It is typically practiced at the end of a yoga asana practice when the practitioner inverts his/her body upside down to induce a calming effect. Because the body is turned upside down, a thorough re-direct of circulation can create a cleansing of the endocrine glands. (The endocrine system is a messenger system in the body that helps transmit information from the brain to the body so it can perform everyday functions.) And lastly, the pose stimulates the thyroid and parathyroid in a positive way inviting fresh blood and oxygen to the brain.
Getting Into The Pose
To get into the posture, start by lying on your back with knees bent, feet on the floor. As you exhale, contract your abdominal muscles and lift your knees toward your chest. With a gentle rocking sensation, bring your legs straight up over your head with your toes pointing toward the ceiling. Support your back with your hands. Hold the posture for 10-20 breaths.
Now, this pose may not be designed for the beginner yogi. A well experienced practitioner may feel the full benefits of the yoga pose since it does involve a strong core, a flexible neck, and a good awareness of breath and body engagement. But even an experience yogi could use some assistance in a pose like this.
Since this posture does involve flexion in the cervical spine, some support in this area is suggested. So that there is sufficient mobility in this neck region, use a folded blanket to further support your body. Place a folded blanket lengthwise across the top of your yoga mat. When you lie down, rest your shoulders at the edge of the fold of the blanket. Your head will rest directly on the mat. This will produce a lift in the body so that the neck area will remain safe when you eventually lift up into the inversion.
Support Your Back
Once in the pose, place your hands in the mid-back area. This will free up your pelvis allowing it to move freely as you fully extend your legs straight up into the air. Perfect alignment of this pose will demonstrate a straight line from your ankle bones, down through your hips, and ending at your shoulders. If you want to soften up the posture, let your hands rest at your belt-line. This will allow you to literally sit in your hands so you can support having your legs in the air. This will create more angles in the body in this variation of the pose, but it is still very effective. Your feet will no longer point directly toward the ceiling. Instead they may point more toward the back of the room. (Even feel free to put a slight bend in the knees.) Further, it will take some of the load and potential pressure away from the cervical spine.
What Should I Do First?
Here are a couple of poses that can prepare your body for taking on this dynamic Shoulderstand:
Easy Inversion: An inverted posture can be very therapeutic for the body, but it doesn't necessarily have to be a Shoulderstand or Headstand to achieve these benefits. You can simply lie flat on your back and extend your legs straight up into the air to enjoy this pose. It can act as an alternative to Shoulderstand or as a warm up for the full pose. Legs Against The Wall is another variation. Lying flat on your back with your legs straight up against a wall will give you the benefit of the inversion, but may also create a restorative nature since your legs are resting on the wall.
Supported Bridge Pose: To loosen up the area in your neck and to give yourself the sensation of supporting part of your body off the floor, try practicing Supported Bridge Pose as a preparatory position. Start by lying flat on your back, knees bent, feet flat on your mat. (Using the folded blanket to support your neck is highly encouraged here.) With an exhale, press your feet into the floor, then lift your hips off the floor. With a gentle rock of your upper body left and right, get your shoulders and arms a bit underneath you. This will open the chest, engage your back muscles, and will keep the neck soft. Bend your elbows to ninety degrees then support your lifted hips in your hands. This will give you a similar feeling when you eventually move to a full Shoulderstand posture.
Once you have completed your Shoulderstand, here are a few poses to practice as a way to create balance in the body after being inverted.
Fish Pose: This posture is actually a backbend, but it places the neck (the cervical spine) in the opposite direction as the Shoulderstand Pose. To get into the posture, lie flat on your back with your legs straight out in front of you, and your arms by your side. Lift your hips a bit so you can sit directly on your hands (palms down). By pressing your forearms into the yoga mat, you'll lift your upper back and head off the floor. While arching up through your chest, gently tip your head back and rest the top of your head lightly on the yoga mat. Hold here and breathe for 5-10 breaths. You can finish by lying flat in Savasana.
Seated Forward Fold: This is another posture that can be done after a Shoulderstand to regain balance in the body. Sit up with your legs straight out in front of you. Gently fold forward over your legs. It is not necessary to bring your head all the way down to your knees; it is simply a way to ground yourself after being upside down. (You can also bend your knees slightly in this pose.) Hold and breathe for 10-20 breaths.
Try Shoulderstand as a closer to your yoga practice. Even in its dynamic state, you bring calmness to the body as you flip yourself upside down.